Dominik Moll’s latest film, Only the Animals (Seules les Bêtes), opens with a striking shot of an African man cycling along the road wearing a live kid goat on his back much as you would a rucksack, arms and legs for straps. But from there we leave the titular animals behind and enter the all-too-human realm.
We’re up in the snowy heights of France in winter, where an optimistic insurance agent (Laure Calamy, of Call My Agent fame) is having an affair with Joseph (Damien Bonnard) one of her clients, a recently bereaved soul who leads a silent solitary life. The woman’s truculent oaf of a husband (Denis Ménochet) gets wind of the affair, fights with Joseph, comes home with a bloody nose and then, next morning, disappears. Meanwhile, up on the high roads, a car has been abandoned and a mystery woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) has gone missing. These things are laid out before us rat-tat-tat as if they were the basis for the story that is about to play out. But this is a case of more information revealing not just different versions of the same story – Rashomon-style – but other stories behind the first story. At some level Only the Animals is a journey into storytelling itself.
It’s divided out into chapters. The first one, Alice, gives us the story as just detailed – wife Alice, husband, affair, missing woman. Joseph goes back in time a short hop to tell us more about the solitary farmer, Joseph. Marion goes further back to explore the life of the missing woman through her relationship with a wildly emotional waitress, Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz). And then, finally, Amandine whisks us out to the Ivory Coast, where we meet poor but proud Amand, who is passing himself off on the internet as a pretty girl in order to scam money out of one of the people we’ve already met.
In each case it’s a story of hopeless, smitten and (in varying degrees) inappropriate love, and we meet people who have been simply overwhelmed by feelings that make them subordinate to someone else, strapped by the legs to their back. And each “protagonist” turns out to be just a walk-on in someone else’s story. As things start to dovetail together, Moll isn’t just examining the grip of feelings but the strange power of a narrative, by revealing it not as a unity but as a series of avenues, each of which dissolves into fractals, if we let it.
The last chapter is perhaps the most interesting, not least because we’re out of the wintry European setting and on the streets and in the internet cafés of sun-scorched Abidjan. Here, Amand is not portrayed as a despicable low-life but as a smart and sensitive guy whose interactions with his “pigeon” (as these scammers call the dupes who buy their sweet words and saucy jpegs) lead up yet another avenue. Amand, too, has his own story of hopeless love to tell.
Moll has been here before, in The Monk, which presented passion as the medieval mindset would have interpreted it, as a battle for the soul with the devil. His first film, 1994’s Intimité, was in similar territory (clue in the title). And so was his most famous film, 2000’s Harry, He’s Here to Help (aka With a Friend Like Harry or Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien in the original French), another tale of an asymmetrical relationship.
There’s also a gothic aspect to All the Animals – death stalks this tale of overwhelming love – as if Schnitzler’s La Ronde had been given a 21st-century wash and brush-up, and with the suggestion that Schnitzler’s daisy chain of tales doesn’t quite reveal the complexity of human lives.
It dovetails together, yes, but only from a distance. Go in close and things get more granular. It’s a beautifully crafted film in terms of acting, cinematography, soundtrack and so on, a touch emotionally cool (what an irony), but what’s really to admire here is the craftsmanship of the ever-expanding narrative. In All the Animals even the stories have stories and, somewhere down the road, those stories have stories too.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021